17 confirmed and suspected dead in Canadian listeria outbreak

The listeria outbreak in Canada goes from bad to worse as authorities announced Sunday afternoon (Aug. 31/08) there are now 11 confirmed and 6 suspected deaths linked to consumption of Maple Leaf deli meats; further, 33 are confirmed ill and another 25 are suspected of being ill with the outbreak strain. However, no comprehensive timeline for the onset of illnesses has been provided.

The developments over the past week are difficult to keep straight. As journalists probe how this happened – how the risk of Listeria monocytogenes was managed – a number of revelations have emerged:

• employees are alleging that sanitation at the suspect plant was substandard prior to the outbreak and that daily cleaning procedures were not consistently followed or thorough enough;

U.S. Department of Agriculture audits found that 19 of 20 Canadian plants were not complying with sanitation standards, while Canadian inspectors were not always aware of their duties, "and were not well trained in the performance of their inspection tasks;" Canadian regulators urged the Americans to soften their language;

• Rick Holley of the University of Manitoba said Canada lacks the surveillance systems that could lead to better detection of foodborne illnesses, in stark contrast to the United States, which takes a much more active approach to addressing food safety through the FoodNet system.

• until Friday, when David Williams, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, revealed that most of the fatalities in Ontario occurred in July, no details had been released on when individuals died or when they first became sick;

a separate outbreak of listeria in cheese has emerged in Quebec sickeneing 47 people and leading to the suspension of product sales from the Île aux Grues cheese company;

an additional separate outbreak of Salmonella in cheese in Quebec has killed one and sickened at least 87 others and lead to additional recalls of three cheeses manufactured by Fromages La Chaudiere Inc.; and,

• Canada’s minister of agriculture and agri-food, Gerry Ritz, held a news conference Thursday to assure Canadians "our food safety system is the best in the world" and that work will continue to improve it.

And now, a message from Canada’s chief public health officer that went on youtube Thursday.